When Buddhism arose in 5th century bc India, it – along with Jainism, its contemporary – retained many of the characteristics of the dominant Brahman religion.
Those which were shared were: samsara, the belief that we’re reborn from one life to the next over a very long period of time; karma, that our actions determine the quality of our rebirths; and liberation, becoming free of those rebirths.
For both Brahmanism and Jainism, what was retained within those various rebirths was the soul, an underlying transcendent self, which was encased within this coating of what we would assume to be the person: body, mind, consciousness and so on. The point of practice, particularly the mortification practices which the pre-enlightenment Buddha’s companions carried out, was to free that immortal soul from that casing and so liberate it from samsara.
Buddhism diverges from Brahmanism and Jainism by denying both the soul and the reality of an unchanging self. But on the face of it, Buddhism retains those other aspects: karma, samsara and eventual liberation.
One of the results of that retention, is that there has been a persistently vexing issue for buddhists – ‘How can there be consequences?’ ‘If there’s no ‘self’, then if I do bad things, to what and where do the consequences of that adhere?’
A lot of Buddhist intellectual effort, around about the time of Nagarjuna in particular, was trying to produce a coherent system which would give answers to questions like that.
However, at a fundamental level, it’s wrongheaded.
We assume that we and other entities persist through time. We take it for granted there are distinct phenomena called ‘self’ and ‘things’ which, as it were, unravel their will, their narrative and their destiny through time. But it’s the other way around. Other than as an obvious, convenient and, probably inescapable way of making sense of our world, our idea of linear time – past, present and future – comes about precisely to accommodate this presumption of the self or the soul. So by logical implication, when the self is no longer affirmed, then ‘time’ as commonly understood, is no longer affirmed either.
We often think of ‘being’ and ‘time’ as like two planes. We think perhaps of a horizontal plane which is ‘being’ and a vertical plane which is ‘time’. If we wanted to make this more figurative, then we could imagine ‘being’ as being the ground and ‘time’ as being this gradually upwardly growing tower, constantly reaching up towards the future. We might also imagine the self as a person running up the staircase of that tower; both to avoid the imaginary annihilation of the past but also, to elevate.
This tower is inherently unstable: because it is made of the self and all that the self implies, if the self vanishes, the tower collapses, back into the ground of being.